My habit of reading books blind did me a real service with On Immunity. If I had realized that Eula Biss set out to investigate the safety of vaccines after becoming a new mother in the wake of the H1N1 pandemic, I would have rolled my eyes with righteous violence and noped right the fuck out of the book store.
The thing is, On Immunity is an excellent book. Biss is fully aware that she, and everyone in her set, is the sort of person whose main problems in life actually arise from the scads of socioeconomic privilege she possesses. Basically, she’s James Van Der Beek, whose back only aches because his wallet is too fat.
Her insight into this privilege, though, allows her to deploy it in a purposeful and beneficial way. She is able to speak to those who are refusing to vaccinate their children (overwhelmingly white, rich, highly educated) in a language they’ll understand and relate to. She addresses the science supporting vaccination, but, more importantly, she unpacks the fear and emotional uncertainty about vaccination. This is where her book really succeeds. People like her don’t refuse vaccinations for their children because they’re stupid, or because they don’t care about their children, or because they don’t believe in science. They do it because they’re not stupid, they do care about their children, and they do believe in science. It’s just that for these folks, emotions and priorities combine in a certain way to flip the conventional understanding of vaccine safety on its head.
I still strongly support vaccination and I believe that the current trend toward delaying or denying childhood vaccinations is one of the biggest threats to public health in the developed world, only just behind the overuse/misuse of antibiotics. But reading Biss’ book helped me understand a perspective I deeply disagree with and humanized people I have otherwise judged very harshly. Essentially, she got me to listen to “the other side” in a meaningful way. In a country ruled by that Sentient Half-Deflated Hate-Balloon with Tiny Hands, such a thing is rarer than a unicorn. So, good on ya, Biss. Thanks for making me think.
Rating: Four syringes